There has been much debate by local governments (and some bylaws enacted) regarding the use of pesticides, cosmetic or otherwise. These conversations have been accompanied by much frothing at the mouth, from both the pro-pesticide crowd, who worry about degradation of their rights and freedoms (and their perfect, weed free lawns) and the eco-warriors who believe that our planet would be better off if all traces of human activity were eradicated. Since I fall somewhere in the middle, in the land of common sense, and have a little knowledge of the subject, I thought that I would weigh in.
When I was young and idealistic, I was a dedicated organic gardener. I only used natural fertilizers and wouldn’t consider using any “chemical” pesticides. I didn’t want to poison myself or the environment so I only used products that were derived from nature rather than created in some evil scientist’s laboratory! I sprinkled my veggies with rotenone to rid them of insects, sprayed Safer’s Soap til my plants were squeaky clean, poured salt on unsuspecting slugs and dressed my weeds with vinegar.
Well, now we’re told that rotenone (derived from the roots and stems of several different plants) is a non-selective, highly toxic piscicide (it kills all species of fish) and is linked to Parkinson’s disease in humans. Safer’s soap, in my experience, results in clean bugs, unless you apply it at strengths that leave your plants black and shriveled. Salt does kill slugs, but it’s a disgusting process (try it and see!) and I could spend most of my time in the garden salting slugs and not make a dent in the population. Some weeds can be killed with acetic acid (vinegar), but the effectiveness of acetic acid on weeds depends on both the concentration and the plant growth stage. I’ve tried some of the commercial acetic acid weed killers and found that precious few weeds die completely. Most just brown off and then spring back in a few weeks and the really tough customers look saucily up at me as if to say, “Add some olive oil and call me a salad”!
I’m not trying to convert you into nuclear-powered pesticide applicators though, on the contrary! Over decades of work at the garden centre I’ve encountered my fair share of those. Some people don’t give a damn about anything but accomplishing their immediate goal, whether it’s killing aphids on their roses, wireworms in their potatoes or clover in their lawns. These are the people who make me think pesticide bans are a good idea. They often believe that if a product says mix 5 ml into one litre of water, then 35 ml into a litre will kill more bugs (oh it will, and maybe your plant too!). They are out spraying weed killers on their lawn on a windy day, nevermind that the neighbour’s privacy hedge is receiving a good dousing as well.
Here is a true story that leads me to support pesticide bans. Several years ago when we lived in another town, I had an incredibly stupid neighbour. Of course he wasn’t too stupid to procreate, and one fine summer day his wife and toddler son were out on the lawn having a little picnic. They had the blanket, some kiddie toys and a bunch of food and drink that they were nibbling on. Dufous Dad decides that this is the perfect opportunity to spray the lawn with weed killers, so he fills his tank sprayer and joins the family out back, merrily spraying herbicides around the picnic site. From inside my house I could see the illuminated droplets of toxicity swirling about his wife and child and onto the food they were consuming. At one point, an insect was buzzing around the dufous’ head so he brings the wand of the sprayer up and sprays it all over his own head! I was in awe at the display of brainlessness. I actually looked around for a video crew, in case someone was filming a “What NOT to do video” but no, he was really just that idiotic.
Why then, do I not support an overall pesticide ban? Well, because if the powers that be simply ban anything that is classed as a pesticide (by definition in British Columbia, a pesticide is anything that is intended to prevent, destroy, repel, attract or manage a pest) a bunch of useful, low or zero toxicity products will no longer be available. It’s a complex issue, and most municipalities that have enacted or are considering pesticide bans don’t have the resources to make effective decisions about which products are truly dangerous and often ill-used and those that present low risk to people and the environment.
The solution for many local governments has been to appease public concerns about the use of pesticides by enacting bylaws that ban the ‘cosmetic use of pesticides’ meaning the use of pesticides for non-essential or aesthetic purposes, i.e. to improve the appearance of lawns, gardens, landscapes or other green spaces and/or to control unwanted or undesirable organisms.
Well, that sounds reasonable, but wait, doesn’t that mean that I can still buy and use these products to rescue my veggie garden from marauding insects, or prevent my shed from being smothered by morning-glory? So what exactly is the result of this type of pesticide ban? As far as I can see it will prevent the sale of herbicides formulated for use in your lawn (which is great because those are some of the most toxic and most improperly used products that Joe homeowner has access to) but almost every other product could potentially have a use that is considered non-cosmetic.
I suppose it’s a step in the right direction, but what we really need is for people to stop and think before acting and learn to use other methods of pest control that don’t involve highly toxic materials, whether they are “natural” or not. Or if you must use these products, use them responsibly, according to label directions. Pesticides undergo rigorous testing to ensure an acceptable level of risk and some very effective pesticides quickly degrade into non-harmful components so that if you take precautions when using them (to not poison yourself and those around you) they have a negligible long-term effect on the environment. Educate yourself before you buy any pest control product, ask for the most effective, least toxic method to solve your problem, you might find that you don’t need that expensive pesticide after all! That might mean shopping at your local independent garden centre (where you can find knowledgable people to advise you) rather than a big box store (good luck finding someone who knows…well…much).
Over the next season I will try to address the pest issues that I encounter in my garden and fill you in on the methods I use to control them. I can assure you, most of my pest control strategies are low-tech and non toxic. You can read my post about growing carrots to learn how I thwart the carrot rust fly, an endemic (and prolific) insect that can render your crop inedible. As for pesticide bans, I’ll have to ponder the issue a little more before I decide whether it’s useful supporting them. I think it would make more sense to assess each product on its merits and drawbacks, but of course that would be difficult, to say the least!